Mission UN-impossible

Attempts to enter a camp for internally displaced people in Sudan's Darfur region proves to be quite the challenge.

    The journey into Darfur started at the break of dawn. I was greeted at the UN airport in Khartoum by personnel who ensured I made it onto the plane.

    As we waited in the freezing cold in the open air waiting area, I started to observe the truly international faces around me - Ethiopians, Nigerians and Bulgarians. 

    The plane finally arrived. An hour and a half later, the captain announced that we were in Al Fashir, Darfur. As I walked out of the plane I noticed Scott Gration, the US envoy to Sudan, only a few rows away from me.

    As the cold breeze hit me and the smell of dust melted in my mouth I thought to myself:"Welcome to Darfur!"


    UNAMID housing felt like a mini-military tin camp [All photos by Fatma Naib] 

    Exercising patience


    I went to UNAMID headquarters as I had already arranged to stay in their accommodation and take part in their patrols. I dropped my bags and headed off to get all the necessarily paper work done. 

    Our fixer in Khartoum had warned me about all the procedures that I needed to go through and how I should be patient with the process. I had just spent two weeks in Khartoum so I was already well aware about the need to exercise patience.


    As the car drove me through town, I couldn't help but notice the heavy presence of UN vechiles,and school children walking out of the classrooms to have their breakfast at 11 am.


    Within almost three hours I managed to get my security clearance and permission to enter the IDP camps, except for the Zam Zam camp because, according to the security guard, it is not very safe there. Despite my pleading that the Zam Zam camp had new IDP arrivals that I wanted access to, he wouldn't budge and insisted that there are no new arrivals.


    Possible kidnapping


    Armed with my security clearance, I headed back to UNAMID headquarters. By then I had already missed the morning UN patrol and was advised to wait until the following morning. I toyed with the idea of going alone in a private car but was advised not to due to security reasons.


    Kidnapping of foreigners is a risk in Darfur, the last being a Bulgarian UN staffer who was held for three months.


    So I decided to head back to the UN super camp where I was staying, which felt like a military encampment made of tin houses. I looked around and felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, but the heavily armed UN security forces reminded me that I was protected.


    After joining the UN police on their morning IDP camp patrol at seven in the morning, an hour later we were on the road. After resolving some unexpected paperwork issues, we were on our way to the Zam Zam camp. As we drove in the military convoy through town, local children waved at us and we waved at fellow UN vehicles that drove past.

    UNAMID offices in Zam Zam - as close as I got to Zam Zam



    It was finally decided that I was not allowed to enter the camp. I called the local security authority and our conversation went something like this: "Salam alaikom, it's Fatma from Al Jazeera, I am with the UN and they are not allowing me into Zam Zam."

    Local authority: "Fatma I told you it is not safe, don't go there, just go to Abo Shook, its safer."

    Me:"I understand thank you for caring for my safety, but I am with the UN so I should be ok."

    Security: "Ok, but you enter at your own risk!"


    By this time, I had lost most of the day and decided that I would just go to the Abo Shook IDP camp in a private car, which our fixer in Khartoum had said was safe to do.


    An hour later I received a call from UNAMID informing me that there was a Japanese journalist that wanted to join me, so they had arranged a patrol to Abo Shook.

    Despite telling them that I was already there, I had to shuttle back and forth a few more times, and was met with bureaucracy each step of the way. I finally did make it in and out of the Abo Shook camp safely, though it happened without the UN because this time I lacked the necessarily papers to enter any camp with UNAMID.


    It's a shame that I will never know what is inside Zam Zam and what takes place during the excessive patrolling of the IDP camps by UN forces, but such is life, I suppose.


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